Writing: To Describe, or Not to Describe?

esther newton writing-humor

      AS WRITER’S WE all have weaknesses and one of the aims in honing the craft is to strengthen them until they are as polished as possible.

The weakest link metaphor is very pertinent in writing, mainly because it seems every writer I have ever read, and every book I have read has weaknesses, although some writer’s deficits are still superior to many other’s strengths. Books are such a different medium to audio or visual arts. We look across the text with searching eyes, every error, every lull in the action is processed. It’s about as intimate as it gets. And every sentence full of life, with meaning, and imagery can stick in the mind long after the covers close.

Generally I love good description – hardly an earth shattering statement to startle Atlas. In a book, with only words to guide they are crucial. But overly descriptive text is equally as dull. Is there a happy medium?

I usually go with the less-fat-the-better route on descriptions. Cut to the chase! is not something I want others to think of my writing, and it’s not something I want to be thinking reading other people’s stories. By cutting it fine, there can be a danger of not including enough framework for the reader to engage in a scene. Do you describe the clothing, hair, facial features? And the buildings interior? The carpet, the furniture, the pictures? It is a lot to potentially throw at the reader.

I generally find that one memorable item or feature, is far superior to three, four, five or an elongated list of who, what and where. A vase of dead flowers on a table tells me more about the character of the person who lives in a house faster, than a run through of the living room details.

There is also the consideration of word count. Many overly elaborate descriptions become boggy to read and put the reader through more effort. It can be positive and not so much. But good descriptions that are concise as well as original can leave me happy to have read them, that little flash in the brain that recognises something special on the page.

Thoughts on descriptive text: Agree? Disagree? Agree to disagree? Agree to agree?


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38 thoughts on “Writing: To Describe, or Not to Describe?

  1. Your example of the vase of dead flowers is a very good one – a single well thought out description holds a lot more value than lots of meaningless detail. It’s not an easy tightrope to walk but I tend to try and give a reader credit for being smart enough to fill in the blanks in terms of a character’s appearance or the details of a room we are in. I see from your book list you’ve read On Writing and I recall a great example in there about a rabbit with a number painted on it – the number was the key point all the other bits about the table, the tablecloth and the cage were superfluous and were left to the reader to imagine. Nice subject to ponder – and as with all things I guess there’s no magic answer! Cheers.

    1. The tightrope must be walked ☺
      And that numbered rabbit example I recall. Its easy as a writer to allow something to overshadow the significance of the number, usually a question of stripping back a few things, so what the reader gets is obvious, but not too obvious. Tightrope again lol.
      Thank you for your insight.

  2. For me, well thought out descriptive text can make the difference between colour and drabness. But it has to be well spaced too.

    1. Yeah agreed. Too much or too little either bloats the story or gives it anorexia.

  3. This is perfect! Now, if you have any observations of my work, don’t hesitate to let me know! 😉

  4. I think some of the other comments on here have covered my view, which is basically: Does the story need it? There are a few instances where lengthy descriptions can build to a pay-off (possibly much later on), but the author should always consider whether they may just be showing off or, to put it bluntly, having a word wank.

    1. lmao @ word wank. That’s a new one for my lexicon.
      And agreed, it’s really quite subjective too but ultimately there ought to be a point.

  5. I most assuredly can relate to this piece, as it addresses the one complaint I see most often about my own writing. (Not so much the blog posts, more so the books.) To paraphrase one of the reviews: “While Brian does tend to ramble on (and on and on), the payoff is generally worth it.” I guess I’m old-school with my writing approach. My favorite books in my formative years were usually those wherein a chapter might have a fundamental summary of “Miriam walked from her patio to the shoreline”, yet the author takes 20 pages to make that short journey, reflecting on this and that as Miriam totters along, moving the story forward but with relatively little physical action. Perhaps someday I’ll get better with the pruning, but for now, I’m still too fond of the dense foliage… 😉

    1. Well, from what I’ve read of your short stories and even the Past Imperfect’s any extra deviance from a plot usually results in humourous description with original similies and examples that bolster what you’re writing about. 🙂

  6. I agree that genre can certainly affect the thought process. I have a particular love of urban fantasy, so you have some creative freedom, but are still penned in by the constraints of reality. It’s an interesting duality to deal with when presenting scenes to a reader.

    This is a great post! I’ve always struggled with the balancing act of “too fluffy” versus “too dry”. Especially when the characters and settings are already so vivid in my own head…

    1. Thanks for your input magechild.
      Urban fantasy sounds like it has its own unique challenges.

  7. Happy medium is best, I agree that one object description is superior to three or four.

  8. The strength of metaphors can also be its greatest weakness, So I think it’s about the purpose of a description… what do you want to do with it? does the description also gives you part of the narrative? Take for instance the first few pages of Bleak House that set the whole scene of the London part of the story by following the fog that permeates everything… It’s a piece I can read over and and over again. But in my own writing i always try to be brief (and rather layer things with surprising contrasts)…

    1. Brevity has taken the place of descriptive narratives from years ago (generally). I wonder if it is simply from ease of reading and writing.
      Like you I tend to pack as much in as possible without overdoing it, it is arguably as difficult as being highly descriptive, both require a certain editing process.

  9. I always think of Dean Koontz when it comes to overdoing descriptions. I swear that he can take three pages to describe a particular tree that is native to California. Too much.

    1. I only read one book – and I could see that already. It reads poorly, and there was a a child like quality to the narrative in Breathless. The suspense passages were cliche riddled as well.

      1. Very true. He had some early hits that have carried him through on reputation.

      2. I think that was also the golden age of being a mass seller. Grisham, King etc all the big hitters have noticed reasonable declines in sales. Coincided with the internet becoming mainstream. Perhaps coincidence.

  10. I agree. In the same vein I hate info dumps. I’ve been guilty of writing them on more then one occasion and then going back to cut it all out again. I always skim over them when I’m reading.

    1. Same. The mind can only hold about 7 items in short term memory at any one time, and that’s pushing it. So authors that introduce Jimmy and his five amigos as well as place names and important plot info are giving their readers an intellectual exercise not an escape.

  11. I do think I need to be more descriptive of some characters so the reader can imagine who they are and care about them a bit more.

    We tend to write with the images of the characters in our heads and forget to describe them as best we can.

    There are some cases when it is best to leave it to the reader as in horror. The less is more attitude takes place in that genre.

    Thank you for the article as it will be helpful to me.

    1. I can be guilty of not describing enough too. And vertainly because the character is so clear in our heads it can be easy to miss adding in a few details.
      And i find even when the author describes a character, sometimes I form an image of what they look like before they are done describing…so even when a character is fully described the mental picture I hold isnt always a reflection of it.

  12. monkey believe story with too many leg likely to stumble. that what monkey believe.

      1. it analogy thing Man make in book he write. in chapter 1 narrator person say “But I’m a friend of words, and I enjoy playing with them whenever I have time for that pleasure. I like to consider words, and listen closely to them, and imagine them birthing new words and ideas. I love pushing words together to form bundles of feeling and meaning. I go exploring with words much like following a new trail through the woods. You might say that, for me, writing down my story is a lot like walking along many trails all over again, only leaving out most of the boring parts–those fiddling little details that no one wants to hear about anyway. I myself don’t like stories with too many legs, so don’t worry, because I won’t be going on about how many times a cricket chirped while I stopped to catch my breath along some trail or exactly how beautiful the high reddened clouds looked just after a particularly glorious sundown–unless, of course, it helps my story along or if now and again I just feel like it, which sometimes I do.” monkey now feel better for give proper credit to Man.

      2. ☺Trails are another good analogy. Which ones become worn most as animals migrate to watering hole?

  13. I love writing full of literary devices that do not directly tell me what is happening, but I like Sherlock, figure it out all by myself. That is the time, when I am mostly satisfied. 🙂

    1. A good intellectual thriller or murder mystery, yeah, I like that too when the author is only ever a few pages ahead of the reader.

      1. YES!! How did you know?? 😀

      2. I didn’t spend 4 years at the Glasgow School of Mind Reading for nothing…

  14. laurakirkbride July 7, 2016 — 9:57 PM

    I agree that too much description can really bog down a story. It can be incredibly tedious to read and descriptions of clothes are the worst. Lengthy descriptions of a place can be welcome, especially if it’s immense and awe-inspiring enough to make me want to ‘stop and look around’ but I really don’t need to know the intricacies of a ballgown unless I’m buying it!

    To me, I think the length of description should be consistent with the amount of the attention the narrator is paying to it. If they’re not paying much attention to something, it should barely get a mention but, if they’re looking at it closely, then it should get the full benefit of a description, even if turns out not to be important. Of course, this gets more complicated in third person.

    When I’m writing, I actually tend to err on the side of wordy, at least in the first draft. After all, I can always edit it out and streamline it later.

    1. I’m with you on your breakdown. It can be a fine line between too much/too little, usually quality of the description and originality makes it interesting as well as how relevant, like you say, it is to the story .

  15. I think it really depends. Description, as all things in a piece of writing, should serve a purpose. That purpose could be to tell you that this character notices every detail. This could be to give you an idea what this character is like, or to help give framework to understand the world.

    So yes, my approach on description is to think during editing, “Why did I write this? What am I trying to show? Does this compliment the text?”
    I guess that’s how I approach a lot of things though, so don’t take my word on it!

    1. ‘That purpose could be to tell you that this character notices every detail.’ – hadn’ really thought of that but true. Sherlock springs to mind.
      And I lik your editing approach.

  16. Agree to agree. I love good description when it adds to the layering and texture of the story. In my fantasy writing, the home and environments of the different characters reflect important characteristics of each individual or cultural group. I use the setting descriptions to add texture to my characters. It isn’t always obvious on a first read, but it unfolds on subsequent reads.

    Description as merely filler drags a story down. I want the description to have a real purpose in the story.

    Great post to think about!

    1. Genre effects it too, I didn’t get that far into the thought process. I imagine fantasy requires a lot of description as the entire world is new and different from reality.
      And adding to character through the story world is always a great way of killing tow birds with one…sentence? paragraph?lol

      1. Fantasy allows a freedom to be really creative and use description. For instance, I have characters who live among the “Bogs of Lependore” in a decrepit village. The bogs and the village all speak to the decayed state of that people group. I think the technique could be applied to any writing to some extent. It adds to the showing instead of telling about a character. Fantasy is a blank canvas, though…Lol

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